First Days in Lebanon

So I arrived in Beirut on Tuesday and the trip went pretty smoothly overall. I realized that I have a love for really long airplane rides; it is a weird chunk of suspended time where you are an in between space (literally) and really cannot do anything other than think. Also, in the months leading up to this trip, I was so busy getting last minute things done that the flight actually gave me a chance to process that this trip is actually a reality.  I also really love the feeling of knowing you are landing somewhere totally foreign and watching from the window as the city grows from a mini conglomeration of buildings to an actual city and just thinking about all the things the place has in store for you. It is so exciting.

Once I got to the airport in Beirut, I claimed my luggage and went through customs with absolutely no problem. In fact, the woman at immigration asked me why I got a visa. She said “next time, you don’t need a visa for Lebanon.”  So with a sigh of relief I walked out of the airport and eagerly looked around for someone with a sign holding my name. I had called the night before and confirmed my reservation with a hostel and they assured me they would send a driver to the airport to pick me. After about 20 minutes of wondering around the airport, I realized that the driver is probably not coming. A man who was convincing me to get in his taxi let me use his phone and the owner of hostel said, “No, Roxana we didn’t send anyone and we don’t have any room for you because you didn’t call to confirm.” With slight panic setting in I explained that I did call and thankfully, I took down the name of the person I talked to. She asked me to hold on and then said, “Come on down, we have a bed for you.” I am already learning that clearly no does not really mean no but rather everything is negotiable.

The ride from the airport to the hostel was pretty short and really the only thing that indicated I was in the Middle East was the Arabic script and posters of Iranian president Ahmadinejad lining the streets on the outskirts of the city. Once I got to the hostel (and was charged double by my taxi driver) the owner showed me to a tiny room with two bunk beds and one single bed and said “ok, your bed is up there.”  With a bit of hesitation, I climbed up the little ladder, sat on my bed and gave myself a pep talk by telling myself that I will adjust once I get settled in. So once I calmed down, I went out into the lobby and started talking with other travelers who were staying at the hostel. I soon realized that one of the highlights of my trip will be the amazing, interesting people that I will meet and day one certainly proved this to be true.

Profile of some of the people I have met so far:

  • A Filipino guy who is the host of a political talk show in the Dinner at Le ChefPhilippines, as well as a journalist, on the board of a beer company and an honorary diplomat for the Georgian consulate in the Philippines (he apparently got drunk with some Georgians in South Africa one night, became friends with them and they appointed him as the Georgian Consule-CRAZY!)
  • A guy from Iran who traveled to Lebanon to apply for his student visa to study urban design at a University in Texas. The day I arrived, he told me he was rejected by the American consulate because they speculated “he would stay in the states and not return to Iran.” He was pretty upset but also seemed excited to meet someone who spoke Farsi.
  • A retired psychologist from Spokane, Washington (so random) who worked in the jail system for about 10 years and once she retired, decided she would take a year and a half off to travel the world.
  • A German guy who is riding his motorcycle all the way from Germany to South Africa.

Lebanese Eggplant DishThe night I arrived, we all went out to dinner to the only restaurant I actually knew about in Lebanon, Le Chef (I saw it on Ant hony Bourdains show on Lebanon) and had a traditional Lebanese meal which actually was really similar to Persian food. I was so relived to spend my first night in the company of other people.

The next day I got up and walked around the city of Beirut on my own. I just got a map and started walking without any real aim or purpose. Beirut, which is on the Mediterranean coast, is absolutely beautiful and right now it is a perfect temperature of 75 degrees. The first thing I observed about Beirut was the complexity of the city. You see the beautiful mosque and ancient churches directly next to Gucci, Hermes, H&M and every other designer or contemporary store you can imagine. My guide book explains Beirut as a city with “one slipper in the middle east and one Jimmy Choo planted firmly in the west.” My initial day in the city, I really got a feel for the European influence on Beirut, especially in the downtown area. The streets are very clean, people are driving fancy cars, there are hundreds of new developments of upscale townhouses or condos and generally you don’t see a lot of striking poverty. On a walk around the American University of Beirut seeing the youth interact and the beautiful landscape I thought to myself, “Wow, people must really be happy here.” It’s hard to believe that this is the same city that has experienced two wars and over 20,000 casualties within the last decade. Though you really don’t feel the effects of this history as you walk around the city, once you begin to scratch at the surface a bit,  the trauma and damage is so evident. You see buildings with hundreds of bullet holes in them and monuments commemorating the many who have died as well as the green line which once separated the Muslim and Christian quarters of the city. The city is now in a scramble to completely rebuild Beirut and you can see major construction sites (which are apparently funded by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the many Lebanese expatriates living abroad) rapidly going up. This area of new construction is so beautiful and chic but seems unreal or imitation like. Walking around, I was reminded of the hotels in Las Vegas like Paris or Venetian. The reconstruction and architecture capture the old designs and esthetic, yet are lacking the character old historical buildings. In a way, the rebuilding of the city reflects how Beirut is attempting to heal by covering up the years of pain and warfare the city has endured; erasing all the scars to forget the past.  Also, the impact of instability on the people does not go unnoticed. People seem hardened and not as willing to interact with outsiders as other countries I have visited. Though you often see people relaxing, indulging in decadence and sitting at coffee shops, there seems to be a heaviness to people’s lives in the city that is masked by cosmetic buildings and sites yet the scars are permanent. 

As far as my personal experience, I have already had my ups and downs.  It is such an interesting feeling to be alone in a city where no one knows you or anything about you.  It grants you this bit of invisibleness that is so unique to traveling on your own. Since Beirut is the type of city where I don’t immediately stand out as an outsider, I was able to walk around and just observe. I realize that in my daily life, I am always going or doing something, talking to someone or getting a million things done. For the first time, I had some time to just be with myself, think about things and take in my surroundings. I guess that is what traveling is about-reminding you that there is more to life than our daily routines and the bubble we live in. 

That evening I got a small taste of the nightlife in Beirut which is amazing. Myself and a couple of others from the hostel went out to dinner and then to the roof top bar in Gemmayze, a trendy area of Beirut, and had cocktails overlooking the city with a live DJ playing new and old school rap music-not your typical image of the Middle East. Yesterday was my first day outside of Beirut and I definitely saw another side to Lebanon. Not only did I notice more poverty, and the more traditional Middle Eastern culture but I also noticed the many different political parties that are vying for power in Lebanon. During our trip, we even got stopped at a checkpoint and were all asked to show our passports which kind of scared me but later found out is really just a formality.

Our first stop on our day out of the city was a small vineyards just a little southeast of Beirut where we went wine tasting. It was kind of odd to find a vineyard in the middle of a pretty conservative area of Lebanon but the winery was beautiful and interesting because caves that were used hundreds of years ago to store wine were recently discovered and restored. On our way back to Beirut we stopped in at small town Aanjar, with an ancient 8th century Umayyad city which was only rediscovered within the last 50 years. I am not really an archeology person but this place was absolutely amazing. We found pottery pieces dating back to this time and the best part was it was totally empty so we had time to walk around and look at all the different sites. All in all, one of the best parts of my day yesterday was getting a taste of the diversity of the country and actually being able to interact and see people the people of Lebanon as a result of using public transportation.

As for my personal state of mind, I am not feeling too lonely since I am always around others who speak English and I can find virtually everything I could possibly need here but there is a sense of solitude that I am finding hard to adjust to. It has really hit me that I am on my own. Even though I will meet people and can go places with people I truly am by myself, and will have to figure things out on my own in a way that I have not done before. Also, I am struggling with the idea of not having a place or anything to do other then travel. I have realized that other travelers are really into site seeing and going to archeological sites, museums etc and basically just always on the go. Although I also enjoy the occasional tourist things, this is not really where I draw my excitement from. I really feel fulfilled and excited about a place through connecting with people and absorbing the culture. So far in Lebanon, this has been hard to for me to do-I have met plenty of foreigners and backpackers which has been great but not exactly what I am looking for. Today, I had this realization that I could totally go through my whole trip as a tourist, tagging along with other travelers, speaking English and having a great time. But this is not why I took an opportunity to travel for 8 months. Gaining depth during this trip is going to be a challenge and something I am going to have to be intentional about, not something that is just going to come to me naturally as has been the case in my other international experiences. I am going to have to cultivate relationships with people and find ways to get on the inside as an outsider.

I also know that in order to stay sane, I need to establish ways to keep myself grounded and stable, even if that means staying at the same hostel for two weeks or taking a day out to write a blog or email. Always being in flux will not allow me to absorb anything because I will constantly be in transition or adjusting.

So all in all, it’s been a good start. When I think about the fact that it is only day 3 of 8 months, I get a little nervous and scared and wonder if I can actually do it, living the life of a nomad for 8 months, but then I just take the advice of a past Bonderman recipient who told me to “chill out, read a book and have a cup of coffee or tea and you’ll feel better.” So today that is exactly what I am doing. We’ll see what tomorrow holds.

Leaving Home

6 months ago I received a call that completely changed my life. There are those epic events that you anticipate such as graduating, getting married or having a baby (of which I have ironically only done the first) however there are those unexpected life changing moments that come as a complete shock and somehow you know your life will never be the same again.

I applied for the Bonderman Fellowship through the University of Washington on a whim. I had heard of the fellowship which was kind of like an urban legend as it grants 7 graduate students university wide $20,000 to travel the world for 8 months. The catch? You must travel independently to 6 different countries in two regions of the world and be gone for a minimum of 8 months. Kind of too good to be true right? Well, after a little nudging from my friends to apply, I wrote a 4 page essay about the various intersections of my identity and my desire to see how my identity will shift, change and grow in each region of the world I visit. I also wrote about my work with immigrant families and how my personal and family’s experiences of displacement allows me to relate to others with similar stories.

About two months before I graduated from my masters in social work, as I was frantically obsessing about what I would do post-graduation, I got a phone call and all I remember is a voice on the other line saying, “Roxana, you are going to see the world!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and honestly, for the first month, thought that the selection committee had made a mistake or would take the fellowship away from me – it seemed unreal. Fearing this, I quickly signed a contract committing to “wander and wonder” while traveling independently (and write a thank you note to David Bonderman the millionaire who funds this fellowship) and it was a done deal.

Over the course of the past 6 months, the reality of this trip has settled in and I have realized the difficulties of not only planning this trip but also accepting that it is in fact a reality. Though I anticipated dealing with many ups and downs and complexities during my travels, I didn’t realize that this would also be the case during the days leading up to the trip.

This trip in nature is a little contradictory. It requires you to be flexible, fluid, and open to spontaneity and not married to any theme or idea however structured and planned at the same time. I struggled with this and had to find a balance between feeling prepared and focused while also letting this trip evolve as I go. You experience a certain loss of control even in the planning process as well as learning how to trust your gut and instinct (which is often hard for me). In the end I have realized that no matter how much I plan or prepare, by nature, there will always be an element of unknown and unexpectedness about this experience which is what makes it both terrifying and invigorating.

The other major difficulty for me has been actually determining my itinerary. You think wow $20,000 and 8 months to travel… I would go everywhere. I have obsessed and obsessed some more (and will probably continue to obsess) about the BEST places to go and the BEST itinerary. Throughout this, I have realized that similar to the trip, there is so much that is out of my control. I can plan, read and research but I know that ultimately, my experience in each place will be shaped by those I meet and the unexpected. And really, how can you go wrong?

Over the next 8 months, I know I will experience a range of emotions, highs and lows, excitements and hardships as well as things that I cannot even imagine or anticipate right now. As I am sitting in my living room on an unusually sunny day in October in Seattle, I am realizing that I am about to dive head-first into a pool of cold water and really, I have no idea what I am getting into. I know that although it will be amazing, fun and so inspirational, this journey will also be difficult, emotionally draining, physically tolling and completely disruptive of the comforts of my life. As I attempt to pack my life for the next 8 months into a small backpack (which you all know is VERY difficult for me) I know there will be moments where I regret my decision to accept this fellowship and just want to come home. However, I also know that if I don’t have these struggles, I will feel cheated and robbed. I know that the hard times are actually the essence of this experience and where I think the most growth and learning will come from for me. I take comfort in knowing that throughout my life, I have never done the easy thing or taken the simple, straight path. I have always chosen to do things that are difficult and complicated and break away from the mold of society. This has become a part of who I am so instead of being scared to struggle, I feel prepared and ready to grapple with the difficulties I encounter. In a sense, although I am so extremely lucky and fortunate for this opportunity, and never take that for granted for a second (especially during an economic crisis) I’ve realized that I have primed myself for this opportunity and set my life up in a way that makes a trip of this magnitude at this specific time in my life possible. Although I have no idea what this year has in store for me, I know that I am ready to take things as they come and use each moment to push me along my journey towards growth, learning and self-awareness.

Most importantly, I would never have the strength to take on this trip without the support, love, and encouragement of all my friends and family. There are so many people who have been such an integral part of making this trip happen from my graduate school friends who pushed me to apply for this fellowship, constantly told me I am the perfect fit and wrote my ideas down on a post-it note when I felt stuck, to my sister, cousins and many friends who have patiently helped me work through my cual OCD with picking countries (as well as holding my hand through those overwhelming REI trips), to my mom and dad for so unselfishly supporting me in my decision to travel to countries that are not the most stable regardless of how frightening this is to them and allowing me to evolve into the person I am today and finally my dear grandmother and all the strong, courageous woman in my family who have sacrificed so much and paved the way for me to take a different path in life. Saying goodbye over these last few days has made me realize how much I rely on the people in my life and my relationships to feel fulfilled and alive. My relationships are what make me who I am. I cherish this so much and am terrified to leave it behind to spend close to a year alone however, I know that no matter where I am in the world, I will take our bonds, connections and all the encouragement each and every one of you has given me and transfer this to the people I meet along the road, making all of you a unique part of my experience. I could never have the strength, willpower or courage to do this without you so I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Here I go…next stop Beirut!

India Inspired My Bonderman Fellowship

**This post was written for Portland State’s International Internship Program (IE3) as a past participant.

 

Last summer, as I completed my first year of the Master’s in Social Work Program at the University of Washington, I conducted a portion of my practicum placement in a rural area of India through IE3. At this time, I could not anticipate how this experience would change my view of the world, as well as the opportunities it would bring my way.

When I arrived in India, I stepped into a land where no one knew anything about me. In fact, the aspects I believed to be the most important pieces of who I am such as my education, career, and expertise were completely irrelevant in the context of working with impoverished women in rural India. Given this, one of the only tools I had was my ability to build trusting relationships with those who I encountered. I drew upon my experiences as a first generation American in the U.S. and my ability to relate to different cultures to overcome barriers and create connections with the women in the villages. Though the vulnerability I experienced from being so far out of my comfort zone was very difficult, it was also the greatest gift my time in India brought my way. It forced me to depend on my relationships with others, not only to access everyday necessities but to find the comfort and sense of belonging and community that I needed. In turn, this opened my eyes to a new way of living and existing in the world.

As my time in India came to an end, I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I realized this sadness did not only stem from saying goodbye to my life and friends in India but the fear that I would never experience or be challenged to see my life the way I did while I was there. When I returned to school to finish the last year of my MSW degree I was under a great deal of pressure to determine my next steps in terms of my career path, my social work specialization and area of practice. Having worked professionally for four years prior to starting graduate school, I could not envision myself graduating and moving into another 9-5 job. This confusion pushed me to think about the times in my life that I felt genuinely happy and the first thing that came to mind was India. Through this realization I accepted that traveling, having new experiences, seeing the world, and being challenged by unfamiliar settings is a part of who I am and something that will never fade away. I also recognized the value of cross-cultural exchanges and how struggling to adapt in a foreign country will personalize and aide in my future work with immigrant populations domestically. As a result I decided to pursue opportunities for international travel as a post-graduate with the chance that it may become a reality.

Soon after, I learned about the Bonderman Fellowship, offered through the University of Washington, which awards seven undergraduate and seven graduate students at the University of Washington $20,000 to travel and see the world. The catch? Each student must travel solo for eight months, to at least six countries in at least two regions of the world. Recipients are not permitted to pursue academic study, projects or research. The charge is to simply travel, learn, explore and grow.

To apply, I translated many of the emotions I felt in India that fueled my passion for travel and my desire to connect with people from different cultures into a four page essay. Two months later, I got a completely unexpected and life changing call where I was told that I had been accepted as a 2010 Bonderman Fellow.

As a Bonderman Fellow, I hope to draw from my time in India, my personal experience as a first-generation American and my advocacy work with immigrant populations in Seattle throughout my world travels. I will travel to regions of the world, including the Middle East, East Africa, West Africa and Latin America which have undergone socio-political and economic turmoil therefore instigating global migration trends. In each country I visit, I plan to explore the histories and current context of various displaced and persecuted communities and gather their unique stories of both joy and struggle. Most importantly I hope to continue to utilize relationship building and human connection as a way to cultivate healing and growth both for myself and those I meet throughout my travels in a similar way that I did while I was in India. I hope to honor the hardships and experiences of the people in each country by folding their stories into my future life, career, understanding of the world and who I am as a person.

Although this opportunity is unique to the University of Washington, and I am so fortunate to have the chance to take on a journey of this magnitude, I also know that even if it was not through the Bonderman Fellowship, I would have found a way to pursue this dream.

Though it can feel as though once you return from a life changing time abroad you will never experience the same feelings of wonder, awe, exhilaration and personal challenge again (and in some ways you won’t), there are so many opportunities to continue to explore the world. A year ago if someone would have told me I would be standing in front of a world map pointing to the countries I will visit I would not have believed them. However, because I followed my passion and was able to open my mind and heart to new experiences while letting go of the traditional career and life trajectories, today this is my reality. The first step is deciding that you are committed to making international experiences a part of your life; once you have done that, everything else will eventually fall into place.

To read more about my time and experiences in India please visit:

http://roxanaindia.blogspot.com/

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